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Constantine: marble head of a beardless man

The Roman emperor Constantine – the first Christian emperor

When did the Arians get started?

When Constantine took over the eastern half of the Roman Empire from Licinius and founded his new capital at Constantinople in 324 AD, he was upset to find out that there was a big fight going on between the Christians in West Asia. He had had about enough of that with the Donatists in Africa!

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Still, he needed God on his side. Constantine’s advisors told him that God wanted all Christians to believe the same way and not to argue. So Constantine tried to get the Arians and the Athanasians (the two sides) to agree.

What were Christians arguing about?

Here’s what the argument was about. Arians (the followers of a priest named Arius) believed that since there was only one God, Jesus was not exactly the same as God. First there was God, and then a little later He made Jesus. The Athanasians (the followers of a bishop named Athanasius) believed that there was absolutely no difference between Jesus and God.

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How did Constantine try to fix this problem?

Egyptian caves where early monks and nuns lived

Egyptian caves where early monks and nuns lived

Maybe these differences don’t seem important to you? But in the 300s AD ordinary people like you got into fights about this in the streets, and hit each other over the head with sticks. Each side had songs about how they were right. They went around in big gangs of monks and priests singing their songs and getting into fights with the other side, especially in Alexandria, in Egypt.

Constantine held a big meeting for both sides in Nicaea (nye-SEE-ah) in 327 AD. He went to the meeting himself to try to clear things up. But he could not get the sides to agree.

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Romans abandon Arianism

Like the Donatists, the Arians and the Athanasians kept on fighting for a long time. First the Arians would be in charge, then the Athanasians. They fought long after both Arius and Athanasius were dead. In the end the Athanasians won. Pretty much all the Romans converted to the Athanasian side by about 400 AD.

But Germans stay Arians much longer

But meanwhile the Germans had all been converted to Christianity by Arian missionaries, so they were all Arians. It got so people thought of all Romans as being Athanasians and all Germans as being Arians. This is a great example of how religion and identity can shift around: at first all Arians were Romans, but later on people thought of Arians and Germans as the same.

The Ostrogoths
The Vandals
And the Visigoths

But one by one the Arian Germans were defeated or converted. Only the Visigoths, in Spain, were still Arians by the late 500s AD. Finally a Merovingian princess, Ingundis,  married a Visigothic prince, Hermengild. Ingundis was Catholic, and she refused to convert to Arianism – how old-fashioned! how tragically unhip! plus religiously all wrong! – and insisted that her husband’s family should convert to Catholicism (as it got to be called) instead.

Ingundis and Reccared

Hermenegild did convert, and he fought a civil war about it with his father Leovigild. Hermengild was killed, and Ingundis fled to Constantinople. So after Leovigild died, his other son, Reccared, became king. And Reccared immediately converted to Catholicism. That was in the 590s AD – and that was the end of Arianism.

Learn by doing: visit a Catholic church and look for a symbol of the Trinity
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Bibliography and further reading about Arianism:

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